April 07, 2014
Cecil Spring Rice was born into an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family on February 27, 1859, in London, England. Spring Rice began his education at Eton in 1871, and he would go on to earn a double first at Oxford. He followed his father into the Foreign Office and began as a clerk on the administrative staff in 1882. Spring Rice traveled to western Canada in 1886 to visit his brother Gerald. He enjoyed frontier Canada and made the unusual decision to switch to the diplomatic service by applying to serve in the British legation in Washington, D.C. During the voyage back to England, Spring Rice met Theodore Roosevelt, who was on his way to London to marry Edith Kermit Carow. The two young intellectuals became fast friends and Spring Rice, henceforth called Springie by Roosevelt, served as his new friend’s best man at his wedding on December 2, 1886.
Spring Rice was posted to Washington, D.C. in 1887 and returned as second secretary in 1889. He got along well with Americans and made friends easily, including influential friends such as Henry Cabot Lodge, John Hay, and Henry Adams. His relationship with Roosevelt, now working at the United States Civil Service Commission, continued to grow. After his initial work in the United States, Spring Rice’s career and responsibilities in the Foreign Office continued to grow, and he served in numerous posts across the world. Spring Rice spent two years in Japan, was posted to Germany in 1895, secretary of the legation at Tehran in 1900, Commissioner of Public Debt in Cairo in 1901, and second secretary at St. Petersburg in 1903. His knowledge of Iran and Persia led to his first ambassadorship in 1906, as British ambassador to Persia. He served until 1908 and was then appointed British ambassador to Sweden until 1912.
Spring Rice kept in touch with Roosevelt, and Edith, through long, descriptive letters about his diplomatic activities. He also coined a famous phrase about Roosevelt during this time; when writing to his friend Valentine Chirol, Spring Rice advised that, “You must always remember that the President is about six.” During their time in the White House, the Roosevelts attempted to have Spring Rice appointed as ambassador to the United States. They were unsuccessful, but Spring Rice’s success in minor posts and many connections in the United States led to his appointment as British ambassador to the United States in 1913 during the Wilson administration.
As ambassador, Spring Rice sought to promote an Anglo-American understanding. He got along well with many members of the Wilson administration. However, he was not close to President Wilson, who understandably viewed Spring Rice as somewhat of a Republican ambassador due to his friendship with Wilson’s political opponents, particularly Roosevelt and Senator Lodge. With the outbreak of the First World War, Spring Rice’s job became infinitely more complex. The United States was the largest potential supplier of food and arms to the United Kingdom and its allies, as well as a potential ally. However, most Americans favored neutrality and Spring Rice had to cultivate American support while simultaneously justifying British policies that violated neutral rights, such as seizing contraband at sea and tampering with the mail. He also interpreted American public opinion for the British and helped guide British foreign policy in order to maintain friendly relations. Spring Rice was once again damaged by his friendship with Roosevelt, who relentlessly criticized Wilson for a lack of military preparedness and adherence to neutrality. Spring Rice’s delicate work culminated with American entry into the war in 1917, and he was recalled as ambassador in early 1918. After his recall, Spring Rice visited Ottawa, Ontario, and passed away unexpectedly on February 14, 1918.
Cecil Spring Rice was also a poet, although his poetry was not published until after his death. His most notable contribution was I Vow to Thee, My Country, which was originally written in 1908 but reworked by Spring Rice shortly before his death to reflect the British experience and losses of the First World War. The poem was put to music in 1921 by Gustav Holst and became a popular British patriotic song associated with Remembrance Day in Britain and Commonwealth nations.
Burton, David H. Cecil Spring Rice: A Diplomat's Life. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990. Print.